When you think of wasp venom, you typically associate it with disrupting a person’s breathing, not improving it. However, along with toxic properties, some insect venom is full of compounds that kill bacteria.
The venom’s toxicity makes it impossible for us to use it as an antibiotic drug, but variants of a peptide with antimicrobial properties could be an alternative to some antibiotic-resistant bacterial strains.
Researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have repurposed peptides from Brazilian wasp (Polybia paulista) venom to make an antibiotic drug that isn’t toxic to humans.
One study tested the wasp venom peptides on mice with Pseudomonas aeruginosa, a deadly bacteria strain that is resistant to most antibiotics. This bacteria causes infections in the respiratory system that could spread throughout the body. Pseudomonas aeruginosa is also known to cause pneumonia and urinary tract infections in people with weak immune systems, a complication that is common for patients with cystic fibrosis.
Prior to being tested on the mice, the refined peptides were tested for toxicity on human kidney cells that were grown in a lab. The most promising peptides were then tested on mice with Pseudomonas aeruginosa.
The presence of the bacteria was significantly reduced after several peptides were tested against it. The infection was eliminated by a high dosage of variant peptides.
Comparison to Traditional Antibiotics
Antibiotics we use today must be taken for one or two weeks to clear an infection. The compound derived from wasp venom cleared an infection in just four days. However, researchers are still testing whether the drug is equally as effective with a lower—and therefore safer—amount of wasp venom. They are hopeful that infections could be cleared with lower doses once additional variants are created.
In the United States alone, the CDC reports that antibiotic-resistant bacteria causes over 2 million illnesses and 23,000 deaths each year. The World Health Organization has long warned of the threat these bacteria pose.
One of the most important parts of this discovery is the precedent it sets. Principles that were discovered in this study could be applied to other peptides derived from nature, which improves our ability to discover new treatments for diseases that were previously untreatable.